New Internationalist

In the shadow of the torturer

Issue 370

The images of the soldiery of deliverance torturing prisoners in Iraq have cast long shadows. That the US, triumphal bearer of universal values, should have abused detainees, signals to authoritarian governments that the persecution of enemies within, real or imaginary, is unlikely to provoke an outcry from defenders of freedom, whose own frailties have now been advertised to the world.

A second consequence is that, with the overwhelming publicity generated by the public contrition of the US, the spotlight has been removed from regimes which habitually violate human rights, or practise extra-judicial killings and disappearances. The pictures of Iraqi humiliation have thrown into obscurity unrecorded coercions in dungeons, cellars and torture-chambers of countries which have benefited from a novel kind of liberation; namely, any need to account for their actions. The obscene imagery of the photographers of military sadism has eclipsed abuses of people in other corners of a darkening world. These appear insignificant compared with the epic irregularity in which the West has been found out: its preachings to those whose destiny it had been to chastise sound suddenly empty.

Bangladesh, to the Western media a distant land, known chiefly for its cheap garments, the export of its labour and its cyclones and floods, in which ferry-boats regularly capsize killing a few hundred people (one such incident, which drowned 200 people on 22 May, went unmentioned in the press) has faded from view. On 21 May, however, the British High Commissioner was injured in a bomb blast at a shrine in Sylhet, in which five people were also killed. This registers faintly on the monitors of Western intelligence as an example of the violent disorder into which the country is falling. The despatch of officers from Scotland Yard to investigate the explosion failed to trace the source of the outrage, since this lies with increasing fundamentalist influence in that country.

Militant vigilantes, led by an elusive commander called Bangla Bhai and protected by the police, have been killing ‘outlaws’ in the north of the country. The Government denies the presence of Islamic militants in Bangladesh, but the Jama’atul Mujahedin Bangladesh, the youth front of Harqat-ul-Jihad – an al-Qaeda organization banned in neighbouring countries and blacklisted in the US – claims to have 100,000 members operating across the country. A series of bomb attacks on secular cultural and political gatherings left more than 140 people dead between 1997 and 2004.

Earlier this year the Government banned all publications of the Ahmadiyya Islamic sect, which accepts Muhammad as the last prophet but not as the final emissary of Allah into the world. Its mosques were threatened by zealots as the sites of heretical worship. Journalists who ‘tarnish the image’ of Bangladesh have been routinely murdered. A popular Opposition MP was shot during a political rally in May 2004, which the Government airily dismissed as ‘an internal struggle’ of the Opposition. At the same time, abductions, kidnappings, shootouts – often involving the ‘student wing’ of the ruling party – increase the sense of insecurity in the country. In Chittagong it is reported that, on average, five businesses come under criminal attack each day in the city.

Proshika, one of the largest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Bangladesh, dedicated to secularism, human rights and the social and economic empowerment of women, has been targeted by the Government ever since it came to power in October 2001. The funds of Proshika were blocked, under pretext of ‘financial irregularities’. Following a nationwide general strike by the Opposition, which had threatened to topple the Government at the end of April 2004, Proshika was accused of complicity, its premises raided, its offices besieged by Government supporters and its president, Dr Qazi Faruque Ahmed, and Deputy, David William Biswas, arrested and held incommunicado. At the end of June 2004 six leaders of Proshika were charged with ‘sedition’. It is significant that while in Saudi Arabia in June 2004 the authorities decided upon closer scrutiny of Al-Haramain for its suspected links to militant groups, Bangladesh was doing precisely the opposite – crippling NGOs whose purposes are with human rights and secularism. Al-Haramain continued to operate freely in Bangladesh.

In May 2004 Christina Rocca, US Under-Secretary for South Asian Affairs, visited Dhaka and expressed concern that the tradition of Bangladesh as a ‘moderate Muslim society’ was going ‘off-track’. In keeping with the report issued by Amnesty International, she complained to the Government that ‘no great effort’ was being made ‘to end attacks on journalists and deaths in police custody’.

The first person arrested from Proshika was Abdur Rob, a man I have known well for many years and who helped me write my book about Bangladesh, Freedom Unfinished. Deputy head of the Cultural Section of Proshika, he was detained and tortured in prison and signed a ‘confession’ that Proshika had been in conspiracy with the Awami League Opposition to topple the Government. In court he stated that the confession had been extracted under duress. He was removed to another prison, where the treatment he received resulted in his being hospitalized.

Only in Bangladesh would the head of the cultural department of an NGO be arrested and charged with a bewildering and shifting range of offences – treason, sedition, conspiracy. Abdur Rob was a freedom fighter in the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. As a young air force officer under training in the then West Pakistan, he stole out of the country and made his way home to what was soon to become a free Bangladesh. The war, in which India intervened on the side of the Bengalis, involved one of the major slaughters of people in the massacre-prone 20th century. Perhaps two million people were killed; even today, bones are still being uncovered in the fields of Bangladesh.

Culture in Bangladesh has a special resonance because the country has been, ever since Independence, engaged in a low-intensity – though often violent – cultural civil war. Broadly, the struggle is between those who identify primarily as Bengalis and those who identify chiefly with Islam. In the current government the Bangladesh National Party is in an alliance with Islamic parties, notably the Jama’at e Islami which fought on the side of the Pakistanis in 1971 against the freedom of Bangladesh. It is, in part, the new-found confidence of the Islamic fundamentalists, nourished by what they perceive as a global war on Muslims – Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Chechens – that has led to growing persecution of minorities, secularists, pluralists and defenders of human rights. Indeed, immediately after the election of 2001, outrages were committed against Hindus, including rapes, killings and evictions. When writer and filmmaker Shahriar Kabir exposed this, he was arrested, beaten and held incommunicado for two months.

The irreconcilable antipathy between the Bangladesh National Party and the Awami League is both cultural and dynastic. Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman, undisputed Awami League leader at the time of liberation in 1971, expected to inherit a ‘golden Bengal’: socialism and secularism, democracy and nationalism were written into the Constitution. He and most of his family were murdered in 1975. After a brief interregnum, Zia ur Rahman took power on behalf of the military. He formed the Bangladesh National Party but was himself assassinated in 1981.

A decade of military dictatorship deleted socialism and secularism from the Constitution. With the return to democracy in 1991 Khaleda Zia, widow of Zia ur Rahman and now leader of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), came to power. She was defeated in 1996 by the Awami League whose leader, Sheikh Hasina – the surviving daughter of Mujib ur Rahman – became Prime Minister. The BNP regained power in the election of October 2001, in alliance with the fundamentalist Jama’at e Islami. Since the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the neglect by the great powers of the conflict in Israel, their connivance at Putin’s war in Chechnya, militancy in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, has continued to grow.

As it is, the two bereaved, embittered women confront each other: implacable, tyrannical, like medieval warlords, neither recognizing the legitimacy of the other, even following electoral victory. The Awami League Opposition, like the BNP before it, has not participated in Parliament. Instead, again mirroring the tactics of its opponents, it has relied upon hartals – day-long strikes that close down all economic activity and originally a weapon against the British – which their supporters enforce with threats and violence.

Bangladesh is the country which Transparency International has consistently found to be the most corrupt of all those it has examined. In Bangladesh 70,000 people die of TB annually and three million people are addicted to drugs, while literacy is a bare 40 per cent. In the United Nations Development Index Bangladesh stands 139th out of 175 – slightly above Congo and Togo; but below that bastion of human well-being, Sudan. Even the World Bank states that crime, corruption and disorder are seriously hampering the country’s development.

The obscene imagery of the photographers of military sadism has eclipsed abuses of people in other corners of a darkening world. The epic irregularity in which the West has been found out makes its preachings sound suddenly empty

It should not surprise us that the West remains silent on abuses in Bangladesh or, indeed, in any other of the cloudy places sheltered by the ‘war on terror’ and abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. For the role Bangladesh is called upon to play in the world contains another ugly little secret. Colin Powell called Bangladesh ‘an eloquent, compelling and greatly needed voice for moderation in the world’. Its symbolic role is to prove that the US has no animus against Muslims. This offers another compelling reason to disregard its human rights violations.

The consequences of the strategy in Iraq are immeasurable. Even though people rarely vote for communalism and intolerance, as the sagacious electors of India showed in May 2004, governments all over the world are using the scarlet T to brand dissent and delegitimize opposition – secular and humanistic or Islamic, socialist or liberal, according to the survival needs of governments. The lineaments of the new order become daily clearer.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to the NI.

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